The only reason I pray is because it makes me feel better. There I said it. I'm not very happy about this. I really wish I was one of those people who prayed because it was the good and godly thing to do. Because their hearts were heavily burdened for the poor. Because they liked praying. I don't like praying. It's uncomfortable and difficult. No matter WHAT time of day it is, praying seems TOTALLY inconvenient. I have this iPhone alarm set on my phone and every time it dings, reminding me to pray I'm like: What? Pray? NOW?! But NOW is inconvenient!!!
But then I pray anyway because prayer is like a shot of WD-40 into my brain. It unsticks things. It loosens things up. I run more smoothly after I pray.
It wasn't always this way.
Growing up Protestant, I'd been rigorously trained in the practice of prayer. Which meant: lots of THINKING. Lots of PLANNING. Lots of PROPER TECHNIQUE.
Praying was sort of like giving a well-prepared speech: 1. Insert 1-3 Scripture references, 2. Glorify an attribute of God, 3. Give thanks for 1-2 answered prayers and most importantly, always always use proper format when opening and closing prayers. We prayed to "Dear Heavenly Father" and we closed with "In the Name of the LORD Jesus Christ, amen!"
If there was a Chicago Manual of Style for Prayer, we had it. And used it exclusively. Only lesser Christians (read: WORLDLY, PAGAN, HEATHEN, CATHOLIC etc.) prayed outside THE STYLE.
But praying like this was exhausting. Also, it lent itself too conveniently to spiritual pride and showboating. Every time we had a church meeting, you could count on some guys engaging in what could only be described as Competitive Praying.
You know, some zealous bro would burst out in a prayer incorporating Old Testament types and shadows, only to be loudly followed by another bro reciting a bunch of verses from memory and then a third bro booming out a mini-exegesis of the book of Daniel culminating in the ETERNAL FULLNESS OF THE TRIUNE GODHEAD, forever and ever amen.
It was like Dueling Pianos except minus the pianos and minus the awesomeness.
When you grow up that way, learning to pray like a Catholic is almost like learning a foreign language. You gotta unlearn a whole bunch of stuff. And by that I mean, you gotta stop thinking and sorta just feel it.
The first time I heard the Rosary, I was breastfeeding newborn twins. They were eight weeks old and pretty much I'd been stuck in a rocking chair 24/7 feeding them. I was worn out. No, that's an understatement. I was a ZOMBIE OF EXHAUSTION.
I was flipping through the TV channels and came across EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network) and saw a group of nuns praying together. Their voices soothed me. It felt like listening to a gentle lullaby.
And in my achey, exhausted, postpartum state---that was exactly what I needed.
So it began. Every morning after I'd gotten my babies all "plugged in," I flipped on EWTN and just let myself sink into the rhythm and cadence of the nuns' lilting, gentle voices.
It was like relaxing into a warm, bubble bath. Except it was a bubble-bath for my mind.
I mean, on the one hand I was pretty sure Catholic prayer was TOTALLY blasphemous because they kept Hailing Mary like every five seconds. But frankly, I didn't care. It felt good.
Eventually, I started murmuring along with them. For the first time in my life, praying felt good.
There was no thinking involved. It didn't stress me out. I didn't have to get all freaked out planning my prayers. There was no showing off for God--or anyone else.
Catholic prayer was accessible. For an exhausted mother of five, this was EVERYTHING.
But even after I'd begun praying along with the nuns on EWTN, I still felt a little guilty like maybe I was doing that whole "vain repetition" thing. I had this idea that my prayers didn't really "count" unless each one was a unique, original composition. I'd been taught that saying the same prayers over and over was empty, meaningless, borderline irreverent. A mockery of true, authentic prayer.
If that were true, why did I feel so much better afterwards? Why was the Catholic way of praying making me calmer and more peaceful?
So, I decided not to worry about it and just kept praying. The more I prayed, the better I felt.
The Catholic way of prayer, I discovered, was only vain repetition insofar as ANY prayer is vain repetition when uttered indifferently, from wrong motives or without heart. I came to treasure the simple, Catholic prayers because they were beautiful, succinct and relieved me of the burden of trying to invent something new every time I prayed.
What a relief to discover I didn't need to re-invent the prayer wheel. Jesus had already taught His disciples how to pray. And the Church had built on that foundation, providing me with a treasure-trove of readily accessible, written prayers. Prayers for every occasion! Patron saints who prayed for specific requests! HA-HA-AT LONG LAST A PRAYER FOR FINDING MY LOST KEYS! YESSSSSS.
Learning to pray the Catholic way--sometimes only half a Rosary or a scrambled-brain-Rosary--even those imperfectly prayed prayers have changed my life. The biggest change of all? A renewed love for Jesus.
No way THAT would have happened if praying like a Catholic was just "vain repetition"!